With time running out for him, Yakub Memon, the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts convict, has again moved the Supreme Court for a stay on his execution. The Indian Express reproduces excerpts from an article by Maseeh Rahman which appeared in these columns on August 4, 2007. Rahman, now the Delhi correspondent of The Guardian, was the Mumbai bureau chief of India Today at the time of the serial bombings in March, 1993.
I still vividly remember my first — and only — meeting with Yakub Memon 13 years ago. Dressed in a crushed shirt and burgundy salwar, he was cowering on the floor in a small room at the CBI headquarters in New Delhi. The handsome, bearded chartered accountant looked terribly anxious and uncertain, not unlike many criminals I had seen in police custody during a long career as a journalist.
My instinctive thought was: he’s cracking under third-degree. But it was not long before I discovered the real reason behind Yakub’s tormented look that day. He wasn’t suffering under torture. He was just very apprehensive. And the anxiety was due to the fact that he had landed in CBI custody as a direct result of an incredible leap of faith and conviction taken by him and his family, something that hasn’t been fully chronicled yet and something, sadly, that was cruelly negated by the death sentence passed against him last week by Judge P D Kode.
I am aware that many readers will be outraged by my view of what’s befallen Yakub and the other Memons… Nevertheless, there’s no denying that ever since the sensational return of the Memons from Pakistan in three different batches in mid-1994, barely 17 months after the bombings, the family has come in for special treatment. Death for Yakub and life imprisonment for his two younger brothers Essa and Yousuf and sister-in-law Rubina only appear to fit the pattern.
At one level, the harshness in dealing with the entire family is understandable — after all, it was Yakub’s brother, the silver smuggler Ibrahim Mushtaq ‘Tiger’ Memon, who had engineered the serial bombings that killed 257 people in what was at that time the most horrific act of urban terrorism anywhere in the world.
But if you examine the circumstances of the return of the family from a plush sanctuary in Karachi, the treatment of the Memons not only seems unfair but also tragic.
Yakub Memon fell into CBI hands partly by chance and partly on his own volition. He had flown from Karachi to Kathmandu in July 1994 for a second consultation with a lawyer cousin from Mumbai. (The first meeting, also at Yakub’s insistence, had taken place earlier in Dubai.) He wanted to return to India, he said, “to clear his name”. A majority of the other Memons, with the exception of two brothers — Tiger and Ayub — also wanted to do the same.
His cousin advised caution. While Yakub may believe that the rest of the Memons had nothing to do with Tiger’s bomb conspiracy, the ‘atmosphere’ in India was strongly against the family, he was told.
Yakub though had come prepared to surrender. He was travelling light — his luggage primarily consisted of a cache of documents, video and audio cassettes establishing Pakistan’s complicity in protecting the Memons after the bombings, if not revealing its actual role in masterminding the conspiracy.
Until Yakub’s totally unexpected arrest, India had given up hope of ever nabbing the Memons. Or of producing evidence to indicate a Pakistani hand behind the bombings.
Immediately after the return of the Memons in three separate batches spread over several weeks, then Home Minister S B Chavan told me in an interview published in India Today: “It was by chance that we got Yakub Memon, but his arrest has helped us clearly establish beyond doubt that Pakistan was fully involved.”
… Yakub had carried the evidence to Kathmandu in a burgundy briefcase (his favourite colour). After his cousin advised caution, he was walking through airport security to fly back to Karachi when a large bunch of keys in his briefcase showed up in the X-ray image looking suspiciously like a handgun.
The briefcase was opened, and out tumbled the Memon family’s Indian passports. Yakub was detained, and eventually landed in CBI hands on August 4th.
Yakub’s failure to return to Karachi days earlier on July 24, however, had triggered a pre-arranged signal for the rest of the Memons. For them, it meant Yakub had gone to India and surrendered, and if they were to follow suit they had to flee Karachi before the ISI woke up. They immediately flew to Dubai using the Pakistani passports issued to them under assumed names.
This created a huge challenge for the CBI. Especially in those days, Dubai was like a city out of a Graham Greene novel-crawling not just with South Asian gangsters and ex-Soviet Bloc prostitutes, but also with sinister operatives from various national security agencies. To complicate matters, Yakub’s wife Rahin had delivered their first child after landing in Dubai. It wouldn’t have taken the ISI too much time to ferret out the Memons and bundle them back to Karachi.
The CBI had to get to the Memons first. In a remarkable cloak-and-dagger operation lasting three tense weeks, CBI officers located the Memons in Dubai, kept them hidden from the ISI, and safely brought them to New Delhi in two groups — first Yakub’s father, mother, three brothers, and a sister-in-law, along with two children, and then his wife and new-born daughter.
Only Tiger and Ayub stayed back in Karachi. The CBI then heard the Memons’ incredible story. They were frequent visitors to Dubai, and some, like Rubina and Ayub, had become permanent residents. In March 1993, Ayub insisted that the close-knit family celebrate Id together in Dubai, and they left Mumbai shortly before the bombings.
After the bombings, Tiger turned evasive, and it gradually dawned on them that the reports from Mumbai were true — a Memon was behind the outrage. Barely a week later, when Tiger suddenly rushed them to Karachi, where they got entry without visas, they also realised that Tiger had done it at Pakistan’s behest.
This provoked father Abdul Razzak to physically thrash Tiger in front of the others soon after they landed in Karachi. The strongly built, hot-tempered Tiger took the beating quietly (just as he later accepted their decision to return to India, though, as Yakub said in court, Tiger warned him: “Tum Gandhiwadi ban ke ja rahe ho, lekin wahan atankwadi qarar kiye jaoge (You are going as a Gandhian, but over there you will be labelled a terrorist).”
In Karachi, the Memons got new identities, a 20-room mansion to live in, and money to start new businesses. But all the Memons, except Tiger and Ayub, felt troubled at being branded back home as terrorists and traitors. They also felt out of place in Pakistan, forced to conceal their past and suppress their real persona.
They had to pretend they were Urdu-speaking Mohajirs instead of what they really were — Gujarati-speaking Sunni Muslims from the Kutchi Memon community.
Initiated by Yakub, the idea gradually took root that since they were not involved in the bomb conspiracy, they should go back to Mumbai and clear their names. “They had a kind of naive faith that since they were innocent, they would be acquitted,” an official recalled.
The Memons felt only Yakub may get punishment for secondary offences stemming from his involvement, as a chartered accountant, in Tiger’s silver smuggling business. But even this could get offset by the fact that the Memons had brought crucial evidence implicating Pakistan.
“Yakub naively thought the country would feel indebted and he would get lenient treatment,” the official added.
… The circumstances of the Memons’ return though were so amazing that the media soon began alleging a “deal” with the family, or even with Pakistan. The CBI’s then Director K Vijay Rama Rao angrily said to me in an interview: “There is no deal with anyone. Absolutely.” He also made it clear the CBI did not intend to turn the Memons into approvers.
Accusations of a deal put Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao’s administration completely on the defensive. It was, therefore, decided to ignore the circumstances of the Memon family’s return and instead throw the anti-terror Act at them. All the returnee Memons ended up in jail, including the parents, the daughters-in-law, and the mentally challenged youngest brother Yousuf. They were all arraigned as terrorists, and no mention was made of how and why the Memons had come back.
Vijay Rama Rao was right: there had been no deal with the Memons. This is what made their return even more extraordinary. The Memons came back because they believed in their innocence. More importantly, they were convinced that since India was a democracy their rights would be protected, that the government would be even-handed and that they would get a fair trial.
They have been proved wrong on all counts.
Rubina got rigorous life imprisonment only because a Maruti van used by Tiger’s men was registered in her name. But she wasn’t even living in Mumbai at the time of the bombings — she had shifted to Dubai six months earlier.
Essa, who was hospitalised with a brain tumour and suffers from morbid obesity, and Yousuf, diagnosed as a schizophrenic, also got life only because the flats and garage where the bomb conspiracy was hatched by Tiger and his men were registered in their names. There is nothing otherwise to link them to the conspiracy.
Yakub has been condemned to death. He was found guilty of arranging money for the purchase of vehicles used by the bombers and organising air tickets to Dubai for some of them. (From the Gulf, these men flew to Pakistan for arms training, using tickets arranged in Dubai by the absconding Ayub.) But such activity was normal for Yakub, since he had access to Tiger’s hawala bank accounts linked to silver smuggling. It does not necessarily show knowledge of or participation in the bomb conspiracy.
A trickier charge is that he asked his driver to give a bag containing hand grenades to one of Tiger’s men. Yakub denies it, but his driver and two of Tiger’s men confessed. Gun-running has always been a part of the Mumbai underworld’s business, so even if Yakub is guilty on this count, it doesn’t necessarily establish advance knowledge of the bomb conspiracy.